An opportunity taken - industries transformed
‘Always plan ahead’ would make an ideal motto for Ian Williams. He is the council director who decides where Darlington’s economic growth should take place and how it should happen - which makes him a very busy man. Pride of place in his office is a plan of Central Park, the linear development zone stretching from the College and University to Business Central and the National Biologics Manufacturing Centre. It is a hugely impressive blueprint, and the perfect example of the town making sure it always has the vision – and capacity - for the next big idea.
"It’s an extremely exciting project – to come from former rail sidings under a number of different ownerships to the developing cluster we now have," said Ian. We started with a clear vision of a business and education quarter, close to Bank Top Station, supported by new housing in a landscaped setting. We see Central Park being a place of inspiration and innovation that will drive the regional economy.
"From the college relocation some years ago followed by the arrival of the Teesside University campus, which gave the town a renewed impetus and focus, this has always been about the agility of the council to respond to opportunities as they come along.
"We were always going to do Business Central Darlington because we needed incubator space in the right location, but getting the Centre for Process Innovation and its biologics centre next door was a bonus and was testimony to the vision we had."
CPI is now planning to build the Factories of the Future development, looking at the global potential of personalised medicine and the National Horizons Centre, delivering skills and workforce development.
Together, this high-tech cluster will make Central Park a place that will change the face of these industries nationally and internationally. But, as with so many projects here, one factor which made it all possible was the council’s skill in converting a series of single opportunities into an ongoing wave of development.
"CPI and the university are working together on the National Horizons Centre developing both ends of Central Park connected by a new spine road giving access to new plots that we can aggressively market for other uses for years to come. Central Park is a development creating something that has a science feel, sitting in a good quality environment, which is why the parkland is so important to the whole site. It is a flagship area, so we want people to be proud that they are there."
The Government is sitting up and taking notice of Darlington because of how the council has made things happen right across the town. One of the longer-term tasks facing Ian and his team is to let them see the commitment and ambition behind Central Park and keep it growing with the same foresight and at the same remarkable pace.
"Our aim is that developments will house successful companies" said Ian. "With housing sitting cheek by jowl with education and industry, it is easy to see the attraction of staying in the town. We have an integrated set-up backed up by an above-average employment rate, a very diversified economy and that unbeatable location.
"Central Park and its keystone developments are examples of the council working with industry to drive up the quality of the opportunities created. These companies bring with them a lot of high-quality technical and graduate jobs with a very high spec to find the right candidates, whether they come from Teesside University or from further afield.
We are carving out opportunities for Darlington, from Central Park to Faverdale and Lingfield Point – but also for the wider Tees Valley. Firms coming here will have a menu of requirements that we are now in a position to be able to satisfy.
"Can I get the right quality of person to come and work for me? Is the financial package competitive with what I am being offered elsewhere? Can I get my goods and services out to market quickly and efficiently? Will my staff be happy and settled here?
"The only way to answer ‘yes’ to all those things is to get to know each business and find out what is top of their priority list and address that. Then we can create the right employment sites with the right infrastructure and futureproof them for any investors or developers."
With so many new industries coming to the town and resident manufacturing industries expanding and diversifying, the other sectors that are knocking on Ian’s door at the moment are retail and leisure. People need to enjoy what they have outside their office doors and be able to take their breaks in a relaxing and pleasant environment.
Feethams leisure and office quarter in the middle of Darlington radically changes what the town has to offer and will be a big part of the plan to build a vibrant centre that will cater for all needs from early morning to late night. But there is also great potential at sites like Faverdale to the North which have been turned from tired industrial estates into wide open opportunities for everything from small industrial to legal practices and to large-scale warehousing and distribution for Aldi and Argos.
With the landmark West Park development just across the road, retail growth is on the agenda here, as the town expands again, with care and confidence.
"You can’t just parachute in new shops in a place like Darlington", says Ian. "On the land we have in our ownership we have to think about what would be best for Darlington in the long term – leisure, retail, restaurants, car parking, office space, residential or industrial.
"The journey never stops in this town, it is about people and what they need to enjoy the town and work and live here. I am passionate about economic development because I know it is the lifeblood of the town."
When the people who are drawing the blueprint for the future of Darlington say they are passionate about their work they mean they have become part of the town and it matters to them. The town’s growth is not a council project to be rubber-stamped and filed away – it is a legacy to make sure the next generations are as proud and forward-thinking as this one.
Published: 05 November 2015
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